Why I Let My Kids Dress Themselves For School

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Image via Amber Leventry

Kids have big opinions and even bigger emotions. They also have big wants that are rarely granted. So they look for ways to find independence and take ownership in a world that has so many rules stacked against them. Lest my young kids, ages 7 and 5, become tiny assholes who turn meal and bedtimes into raging dumpster fires, I tend to set firm limits on screen time, desserts, and bedtime routines.

But there is one thing I don’t give a fuck about, and that’s what my kids wear. In our house, clothes, shoes, and dress-up gear are ways for my kids to express themselves. My daughter and her younger twin siblings pick out their own clothes for school, and though they sometimes come downstairs looking like the before version of a participant on Queer Eye, I am glad my kids dress themselves for the day.

My oldest daughter went through an animal print phase that lasted for two years. Jungle animals were the preferred pattern choice. Cheetah or leopard print ANYTHING was standard; mixing prints was high fashion in her mind too. Leopard spots on top, cheetah on the bottom, like a bad safari mullet. She also liked to accessorize with head bands, goggles, and bandanas. For about six months, I was convinced our anonymous sperm donor was Poison front man Brett Michaels.

Image via Amber Leventry

But you know what? I didn’t care. She had on clothes. And she was happy.

She also has a big imagination. When she was three, her daycare teacher said he really liked my daughter’s “out loud voice.” Which was code for my kid talks all the fucking time and it usually involves some story only she understands. What she wears out of the house usually coordinates with her mood and the scenarios running through her head.

These days she gravitates to her T-shirts from rec sports and her cowboy boots that my partner spent 4 hours searching for before ending up at a tack shop sorting through saddles and grain. But my daughter picks what makes her feel good, and when you’re 7 going on 13, you want to feel good around your peers. Confidence is a must in 2nd grade, and her clothes give her that.

When friends found out my partner and I were having twins, they asked if we were going to dress them alike. First of all, who has time for that? To coordinate cute outfits and hope the kids will be in the mood to look like they are part of a Disney pop group? No. Also, I reminded people, they are two separate people. Unless I happened to grab the same color onesies or didn’t put clothes on them at all, I had no intention of having my twins match.

I have always taught my kids that clothes are for covering bodies; they are to protect us and keep us cool or warm. No item of clothing or its color or style can define gender. My kids’ gender does not limit their clothing.

But when my 18-month-old assigned-male-at-birth child refused to put the navy sweat pants on that I had picked out one morning, clothes became an expression of her identity. My transgender daughter knew from a very young age that she is a girl. And stereotypes be damned, she wanted the girliest clothing possible. I dug clothes out of bins that had been her older sister’s. I found skirts and dresses and sparkles and pink and purple items that made her feel like the girl she knew she was and wanted the world to know.

Image via Amber Leventry

Changing her pronouns from male to female, sending her to school as female identified, and correcting her birth certificate (with her consent) to indicate her female gender have been part of her social transition. But clothing was what gave her validation; clothing was her way of being the girl she wanted us to recognize. And not just any clothing, but gendered clothing—despite my lackluster appreciation for most of it. Shirts that read “Girl Power” or “Super Sister” add more layers of proof somehow. And again, you know how hard it is to get kids into clothing? Try putting “boy” clothes on a kid who knows she is a girl and wants to wear her Elsa dress to school or the grocery store. Try putting any clothes on a kid—no matter their gender—who wants to wear their Elsa dress to the store.

My son broke the mold too. When I offered him standard, hand-me-down athletic pants last winter, he adamantly refused to wear them. He didn’t want jeans. He didn’t want sweat pants. What he wanted was to go to school in his underwear or pajamas, which by the way I have also allowed, or shorts. But he understood the consequences of doing so. He knew his friends would give him funny looks if he only had on his Ninja Turtle undies on. And he knew he would be cold in his basketball shorts.

Instead of forcing clothes on him that he had in his drawer, I asked what he wanted to wear. What would make him feel good? Tights. He wanted to wear black tights—like Batman. So we dug around his sister’s drawer and found a pair of tights—it pays to have a twin sometimes. We also found a navy pair. And once I knew his new attire was going to be super hero shirts and leggings, I went to Old Navy and bought a pair for every day of the week. He was thrilled. When a kid in his class told him tights were for girls, he corrected her: “Tights are for super heroes.”

Image via Amber Leventry

As long as it is weather appropriate, my kids wear what they want to school and everywhere else. It makes it so much easier to get out of the house each day—not easy, but easier. Choosing what they put on their bodies gives them the freedom to express themselves creatively and in a way that reflects their inner selves. It gives them comfort and confidence. And it gives them a sense of control of their world, which feels pretty rare as a kid.

Sometimes that looks like mismatched animal print or sparkly sequins. It looks like cowboy boots and rainbow sneakers. And sometimes it looks like a little boy who just wants to be Batman.

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